Doctor Who reviews: The Moonbase

On more than one occasion Colin Baker, who played the sixth incarnation of the Doctor, has observed that if it was not for Patrick Troughton’s portrayal of the Second Doctor, the Doctor Who series as we know it might never have existed.  If Troughton had not been able to sell the audience on the idea that the Doctor could completely change, taking on not just a totally new appearance but an entirely different personality, yet at the same time still be the same character previously played by William Hartnell, then the show would never have lasted half a century.

I believe that Baker is absolutely correct.  Nowadays the concept of regeneration, of a new actor coming in to play the Doctor every few years, is taken for granted by fans of the series.  But back in 1967, if Troughton had not given such a brilliant performance as the new Doctor, and won the audience over, the show probably would have been canceled.

For a number of years Troughton’s crucial contributions to Doctor Who became overlooked due to the fact that the majority of the serials he appeared in were either missing or incomplete.  Fortunately within the last quarter century a number of those previously-lost episodes have been rediscovered, and others have been recreated using the original audio tracks (recorded back in the day by avid fans) combined with brand new animation.  Younger fans now have the opportunity to view stories which have not been seen in decades.

Moonbase DVD

One of the recent DVD releases to feature Troughton’s Doctor is “The Moonbase,” a four episode serial written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis broadcast in early 1967.  It is only the fourth story to feature Troughton, and I think that it marks a major turning point in the series.  Episodes two and four have been in the BBC archives for quite a number of years, and I’ve viewed them a few times previously on the Lost In Time DVD set.  With episodes one and three now recreated via animation, it is finally possible to view the story in its entirety, which gives a much better feel for its significance.

It can still be a bit difficult to understand the evolution of the Second Doctor.  However, going by the soundtracks, photographs, surviving footage, and novelizations of his first three stories, it seems that Troughton did take time to find his feet.  Early on his Doctor was very comical, wearing strange hats and assuming oddball disguises.  With “The Moonbase,” Troughton finally settles into the role.  It is here that the Doctor solemnly states his now-iconic mission statement:

“There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things that act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.”

From this point on, the Second Doctor is still humorous, but it is more often with the goal of distracting people or making villains underestimate him.

Looking back on my review of the Matt Smith episode “Cold War” last April, I see that I described the Eleventh Doctor as “an oddball with a steely determination beneath the babbling and flippancy.”  That also sums up the Second Doctor very well indeed.  Smith really did find quite a bit of inspiration in Troughton.

So, what is “The Moonbase” about, anyway?  Unexpectedly landing the TARDIS on the Moon in the year 2070, the Doctor and his companions Ben, Polly, and Jamie find that the weather-control center for the Earth is experiencing both a mysterious plague and unexplained technical difficulties.  They soon discover that the Cybermen are behind this crisis, with the goal of seizing the weather-manipulating Graviton and using it to wipe out all life on Earth.

“The Moonbase” is something of a retread of Pedler & Davis’ inaugural Cybermen story, “The Tenth Planet.”  However in most respects this serial is a marked improvement.  Morris Barry’s direction is top notch.  One of his most memorable sequences is the opening of episode four, with an army of Cybermen marching across the surface of the Moon.  The pacing of this story is much stronger.  The characters are better developed.  Unlike the unhinged General Cutler from “The Tenth Planet,” the Graviton’s commander Hobson (the excellent Patrick Barr) may be stern and short-tempered, but in a crisis he knows how to keep his head and rally the staff working under him.  The Cybermen costumes, while they do look rather more robotic, unfortunately betraying much less of the creatures’ organic origins, are better designed and built, at least from the practical aspect of actual actors having to wear them in a hot, cramped studio.  And unlike “The Tenth Planet,” which saw the Doctor unavoidably sidelined for much of the action due to Hartnell’s ill health, in “The Moonbase” the time traveler is front & center in the story.

Moonbase Polly animated

I also found that “The Moonbase” made much better use of the character Polly (Anneke Wills).  Yes, in the first half she is relegated to tending to the injured Jamie in the medical unit and serving coffee.  But in episode three it is Polly who figures out a way to fight the Cybermen, mixing together a cocktail of chemical solvents to spray at their chest units, which destroys their artificial organs, killing them.  When Ben (Michael Craze) attempts to convince Polly to stay in the medical center, arguing that fighting the Cybermen is “men’s work,” she has none of that, and charges into battle with a fire extinguisher full of chemicals.

If “The Tenth Planet” was the first “base under siege” story in Doctor Who, then it was “The Moonbase” that refined the formula.  Heck, the word “base” is actually part of the title, and in episode three Hobson tells his staff that they are “under siege.”  So there you go!  In any case, the basic structure would be repeated throughout Troughton’s tenure as the Doctor.  Even in modern Doctor Who this formula has been effectively utilized from time to time, namely in “The Waters of Mars” and “Cold War.”

A humorous aspect of this story comes out of the scripts having been written before the last minute decision was made to have Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) join the TARDIS crew at the end of “The Highlanders.”  This meant that Pedler & Davis had to write Jaime in at the eleventh hour.  Their solution was to have Jaime suffer a concussion early on in the story, and then spend the next two episodes lying semi-conscious in the medical center. And whenever a Cyberman pops into the room, the delirious Jamie thinks it is the ghostly “Phantom Piper” come to claim his soul!

There are, admittedly, a few faults to “The Moonbase.”  The Doctor supposedly conducts an incredibly thorough investigation in an attempt to find the cause of the plague.  He examines everything: food, water, clothing, boots, hair, and I don’t know what else.  The result is that he comes up completely empty-handed.  Then five minutes later another crew member dramatically keels over after drinking a cup of coffee and the Doctor realizes the Cybermen have poisoned the sugar.  Um, if he tested everything, how did he miss that the first time around?

I’m also trying to figure out what the deal is with the Cyberman who every so often pops out of the closet in the back of the medical center, snatches up a plague-infected crewman, and drags him back inside.  Each time this happens, a few moments later when someone goes to search the closet it’s empty.  Where the heck do the Cyberman and his captive go?  It’s like they vanish into thin air.  Yes, the Cybermen have dug a hole under the lunar surface into the underground storeroom of the base.  But we never find out how they do their disappearing act in the closet.

I’m also not too keen on the notion that the Cybermen are somehow inordinately affected by gravity, forcing them to infect the staff with a virus, take control of their minds, and use them to operate the Graviton.  So, tallying things up, that already gives the Cybermen three major vulnerabilities in just two stories: radiation, chemical solvents, and gravity.  (At least we’re still a couple of decades off from the point where you could kill the Cybermen by bouncing gold coins off their chest units!)

It’s also stated at a few times that all of the Cybermen died nearly a century ago when their home planet Mondas was destroyed, which is why initially Hobson doesn’t believe Polly when she says she’s seen them.  Apparently there was going to be dialogue in episode three where the Cybermen explained they were part of a group that departed from Mondas some years before its destruction.  Supposedly the scene was filmed but was then cut because the episode was overrunning, even though there was other less vital material that could have been edited out instead.  The result is that viewers are never told how the Cybermen survived.  At least Gerry Davis restored that piece of exposition when he novelized “The Moonbase” as Doctor Who and the Cybermen in 1974.

Doctor Who and the Cybermen

Well, aside from a few weaknesses, this is a solid story.  And the DVD extras are of a high quality.  First off, the animation used to recreate the two missing episodes looks fantastic.  I was watching this with Michele, and she was impressed, especially with the lifelike, nuanced animated versions of the characters.  Her specific comment was “Nice facial expressions.”  Troughton did much of his acting with his features, expressions and body language, so it is a lovely detail that the animators were able to restore that aspect of his performance.

There were, regrettably, only a few participants available for the making of feature “Lunar Landing” due to the fact that many of the cast and crew are no longer among the living.  Nevertheless, it is still an informative segment with some revealing information.  All these decades later Anneke Wills possesses very detailed memories of the production.  It was interesting to hear her explain that director Morris Barry, who she describes as “tough” and “highly disciplined,” played a crucial role in getting Troughton to tone down the comedic aspects of his performance and portray “the darker, more serious side of the Doctor.”

“The Moonbase” may not be the best Cybermen story of the 1960s.  I consider their next appearance, “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” to hold that honor.  But, as I’ve said before, I think Pedler & Davis were on a learning curve, and you can see the improvement from one story to the next, with “The Moonbase” improving on “The Tenth Planet,” and then “Tomb of the Cybermen” improving on that.  Certainly “The Moonbase” was a vital step in establishing the characterization of the Second Doctor, as well as setting the stage for many of the now-classic serials that would be produced over the next two and a half years.  And all that, in turn, helped to propel Doctor Who into a long and successful series that still resonates with today’s viewers.

Doctor Who reviews: The Tenth Planet

I’ve wanted to watch the Doctor Who serial “The Tenth Planet,” originally broadcast in October 1966, for many years.  However, as the final episode has been missing from the BBC archives for almost four decades, I never had the opportunity until now.  The DVD release of the story features a reconstruction of that missing episode using the original audio track and brand new animation based on the Telesnap photos made by John Cura way back when.

Tenth Planet DVD

So, having finally had the chance to see “The Tenth Planet,” what did I think of it?  Well, to be perfectly honest, while I thought it was a good story, I did not necessarily think it was a great one.  I think that this serial, co-written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis, is significant for the precedents it set for the series as a whole.  One, it is the debut of the Cybermen, now regarded as the second most popular monsters after the Daleks.  Two, it introduced the concept that the Doctor is capable of undergoing a complete change in both his physical form and personality, as William Hartnell transformed into Patrick Troughton in the closing seconds of the final episode, an aspect of the series’ mythology that eventually enabled the show to last for half a century and counting.  Three, it established the “base under siege” story formula which would be so effectively used throughout Troughton’s three years portraying the Doctor, and which has been revived from time to time since then.

The concepts introduced by Pedler & Davis in “The Tenth Planet” are definitely innovative & creepy.  The idea of a parallel race of human beings that existed on Earth’s long-lost, wandering twin planet Mondas, who found themselves growing weaker and weaker and decided to resort to the replacement of body parts & organs to survive, is a really good one.  As postulated by Pedler & Davis, the Cybermen eventually succumbed to their own technology, becoming more mechanical than organic.  Even the alteration of their still-living brains to remove emotions was seen by them as an improvement.  In the end, the Cybermen did survive, but at the cost of their humanity.  In those scenes where the technicians of the South Pole Tracking Station are desperately attempting to save the doomed crew of the Zeus IV space capsule, there is something very tragic about the Cybermen’s complete inability to comprehend why these humans are expending all of their efforts & energy towards a hopeless task.

I also really like the designs of these early Cybermen.  The cloth-like face with an obviously humanoid head beneath it, the still-organic hands, and the rather bulky, clunky forms of their headgear & chest-units all point to beings who were once human and, over time, were gradually transformed into cyborgs by spare-part surgery.  There is something undeniably spooky about these Cybermen.  Derek Martinus, who overall does good work directing this story, certainly succeeds in making the Cybermen menacing figures, especially in the scenes set on the Antarctic landscape.

On the one hand, it’s a real shame that in subsequent appearances the Cybermen appeared much more robotic than they did here.  On the other, yeah, I can certainly understand why, given a bigger budget, the production team decided to streamline them.  These must have been incredibly difficult costumes for the actors to wear, and in quite a few shots you can actually see the Cybermen’s helmets held together by transparent tape.

Tenth Planet Cybermen

All that said, though, “The Tenth Planet” does have certain problems.  The pacing of this story is poor.  The first invading party of Cybermen is wiped out towards the end of the second episode.  In the third episode, we barely see the Cybermen at all.  Most of the third installment is taken up by the increasingly-deranged General Cutler ordering the launch of a super-weapon known as the Z-Bomb to destroy Mondas, even though everyone keeps warning him that the resulting explosion will probably expose the Earth itself to deadly radiation.  Making matters worse, Hartnell became very ill right before the filming of this episode.  So, via a body double, the Doctor passes out in the opening seconds of part three, and it falls to his companions Ben and Polly, played by Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, to try and thwart Cutler’s mad scheme.  Yes, that gives Ben a lot to do.  But poor Polly spends the episode looking after the unconscious Doctor and serving coffee to the tracking station staff (yeah, okay, this was written in the 1960s, but still).  The episode just seemed to drag on.

Then part four arrives, and suddenly events rocket forward.  The Cybermen re-invade the Snowcap base not once but twice in a plot to blow up the Earth with the Z-Bomb before Mondas absorbs too much energy & dissolves.  After that fails, Mondas does indeed go kaput, and the Cybermen, who were drawing their energy from it, disintegrate.  Ben rescues the Doctor and Polly from a now-abandoned Cyber-ship.  And to wrap it all up, once they get back to the TARDIS, the Doctor collapses and regenerates.  That’s a hell of a lot to cram into 25 minutes!

I think it is extremely unfortunate that Hartnell was absent for a large percentage of what was his last story.  Watching the first two episodes of “The Tenth Planet,” he is in top form, giving a magnificent performance.  You would hardly guess he was suffering from ongoing health problems and was on the verge of departing the series.  But then, sadly, it just falls apart.  Hartnell is completely absent from part three.  When he does return for part four, between the fact that he was still recuperating from bronchitis and the character of the Doctor is written as fading fast, Hartnell does not have too much of a presence in his final episode.

There are also some major flaws with the Cybermen.  The whole notion that Mondas needs to recharge itself by sucking up Earth’s energy, but that it will be destroyed if it drains too much, leaves the Cybermen looking rather incompetent.  They appear to have no plan for dealing with this, other than invading the Snowcap base and using the Z-Bomb to destroy the Earth before that happens.  At least, I’m guessing that is why they landed at the South Pole in the first place, even though they don’t get around to attempting to utilize the Z-Bomb until the final episode.  And that presents another hindrance: the Cybermen need ordinary humans to prepare the Z-Bomb.  Why?  It turns out that, despite having replaced the majority of their organic material with artificial parts, making them super-strong, bulletproof, and immune to illness, the Cybermen are somehow much more vulnerable to radiation than ordinary human beings.  All that Ben and the Snowcap scientists end up having to do is don radiation suits, pull the rods from the base’s nuclear reactor and thrust them at the approaching Cybermen, causing the denizens of Mondas to instantly collapse.

I’m not saying that “The Tenth Planet” is a bad story.  As I explained at the outset, I think it is a good story with interesting ideas.  There are certain flaws that unfortunately keep it from being truly great, problems which perhaps Pedler & Davis could have ironed out if they’d had more time to fine-tune their scripts.  And, of course, there was Hartnell’s sudden illness, which caught everyone by surprise.  No one could have prepared for that, especially given the breakneck speed at which the show was filmed back in the 1960s.

Tenth Planet novelization

Perhaps “The Tenth Planet” was a learning experience for Pedler & Davis.  In their next two Cybermen stories, “The Moonbase” and “Tomb of the Cybermen,” there is a very apparent climb in quality.  In turn, Davis may have taken what he learned co-scripting those two serials and applied it ten years later when, in 1976, he novelized “The Tenth Planet.”  Yes, the plot holes of the televised version are inevitably still there, but they are much less obvious.  Indeed, Davis’ book has a very palpable atmosphere of claustrophobia & menace.

In the end, we can look back on “The Tenth Planet” as a crucial moment of major transition & experimentation for Doctor Who.  The series was taking a tremendous leap into the unknown via the recasting of the main character, the Doctor.  It was also introduced an enduring villain, as well as establishing a story structure that would be very effectively utilized over the next three years, leading to a number of now-classic serials.  By working though the difficulties of this particular story, the production team helped to guarantee the series a long and exciting future.